Nicolo Machiavelli (1469-1527)
Nicolo Machiavelli is considered one of the great political philosophers of the late Renaissance period. In Machiavelli's day, Italy was a scene of intense political conflict involving the dominant city-states of Florence, Milan, Venice, and Naples. The Papacy, France, Spain, and the Holy Roman Empire all vied for power in Italy. Each city attempted to protect itself by playing the larger powers off against each other. The result was continual political intrigue and violence. The Prince was written against this backdrop, and in its conclusion Machiavelli issued an impassioned call for Italian unity, and an end to foreign intervention.
Florence had been ruled by the wealthy Medici family since 1434. Machiavelli became a diplomat and was part of a reform movement which challenged the Medici rule and suceeded, in 1494, in temporarily deposing the Medicis from power. When the Medici family regained power in 1512, Machiavelli was removed from public office, briefly imprisoned and tortured. For the next 10 years he devoted himself to writing history, political philosophy, and even plays. He ultimately gained favor with the Medici family and was restored to public office for the last two years of his life. Machiavelli wrote The Prince in 1513, though it was not published until after his death in 1532. The work immediately provoked controversy and was soon condemned by Pope Clement VIII. Its main theme is that princes should retain absolute control of their territories, and that wise princes should use a variety of means to accomplish this end, including deceit.
In several sections, Machiavelli praises Caesar Borgia, a Spanish aristocrat who became the notorious and much despised tyrant of the Romagna region of northern Italy. During Machiavelli's early years as a diplomat, he had witnessed Borgia's rule first hand. This originally led some scholars to conclude that Machiavelli held up Borgia as the model prince. Other readers initially saw The Prince as a satire on absolute rulers such as Borgia and a demonstration of the repugnance of arbitrary power. However, this theory fell apart when, in 1810, a letter by Machiavelli was discovered in which he revealed that he wrote The Prince to endear himself to the Medici family. To liberate Italy from the influence of foreign governments, Machiavelli contended that strong indigenous governments are necessary, even if they are absolutist.
Machiavelli's other major work, Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius (1513-21), was mainly concerned with "republics," defined as states controlled by a politically active citizenry. In Discourses he emphasized that for a republic to survive, it needed to foster a spirit of patriotism and civic virtue among its citizens. Machiavelli argued that a republic would be strengthened by the conflicts generated through open political participation and debate.
The Classical Library,